Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

The Power of the Open Question

Published in Jan-Feb 2023

Ask and listen, advises Julian Saunders.
Dolce & Gabbana’s Covent Garden Christmas pop-up
Dolce & Gabbana’s Covent Garden Christmas pop-up

As a young strategist at Ogilvy, I had a stroke of luck. I was sent on a training course to learn qualitative research techniques. I learnt about research design, how to ask open questions, listen to the responses carefully and then follow up with more open questions. These seemingly simple techniques have been very useful throughout my career – I still apply them today in the design of workshops and training courses. 

What do I mean by “an open question?” (which is itself an example of an open question). I would start a group discussion with a question like: “When I say (insert xxx) what comes to mind?” (xxx being a brand – like say BMW – or a consumer category – say electric cars). 

My first boss – Beth Barry – encouraged me to conduct focus groups early in the strategy process before our brains became clouded with too much industry knowledge and thus lost sight of what people really think and feel. It can be quite bracing to learn that people find your category confusing or boring and that your brand is not even on their radar. 

As the team member who had met “consumers” (and listened to them), I had more influence, which I quite enjoyed. It was useful for the agency too, as it meant I had permission to deliver uncomfortable messages (diplomatically of course) by representing “the consumer point of view” in meetings. 

Mostly what we learnt was that cutting through the media noise and getting noticed was difficult enough. If you could get people just to feel something about your brand, that was quite an achievement. People are not much interested in gaining knowledge about your brand unless they are either heavy buyers or actively considering spending a large sum on an expensive purchase. In strategy meetings, it helped to think clearly and honestly about those vital questions – ‘What is the role of communication for this brand?’ and ‘How will communication work for this brand?’ The typical outcome of these discussions was to strive for great simplicity and avoid either too many objectives or cramming in too much information. 

Specsavers’ outdoor installation ‘Dodgy Ladder’ uses the brand’s iconic slogan
Specsavers’ outdoor installation ‘Dodgy Ladder’ uses the brand’s iconic slogan

Open questions are also a very useful tool for life. People like being listened to and they will like you personally for listening to them. They will like you even more if, having listened to their reply, you ask a follow-up question and keep listening. Most people don’t do this. They look for a jumping-off point for what they want to say next. 

This is an especially important insight into our common humanity if you are in a client service role. As a young man in advertising, I often operated under the mistaken belief that my clients liked their agency people to be performatively entertaining or clever. My younger self was a show-off in client meetings. But very few people can pull this off with charm. Most clients will think you are an egotist and that their concerns are not being listened to. (BTW – I have observed that young men are more prone to this irritating behaviour than young women.)

Twenty years ago, after publishing a book, I hit the lecture circuit and I came to Pakistan for the first time to present at The Pakistan Advertising Society’s annual conference (a grand and glamorous affair with c. 200 people in the audience). The job of a keynote speaker is to be entertaining and informative. I was, though I say so myself, not bad at this as I had spent the previous 20 years doing numerous new business pitches. I had a lot of practice.

Now, I enjoy performing. It satisfies my ego and, when designing a training course, it is tempting to think about it as “what knowledge do I need to communicate in presentations.”

This, however, does not lead to a good learning experience. I have read hundreds of the “feedback forms” that students give after my courses. Rarely do they congratulate me on the quality of my presentations; rather, they enjoy the interaction and discussion with the course leader (me) and their fellow students. In other words, what they really want is the opportunity to talk and be listened to. 

When I design a course now I allow for regular breakouts and ensure that I present for no more than 20 minutes at a time. At least 60% of the time is taken up with group debates as well as breakouts into smaller groups – qualitative research methods in other words. 

Last month, I ran a new course (called ‘Creativity Day’) for the digital marketing team of a huge global electronic goods company. I asked the 18 attendees to bring along “a piece of creative work they really like.” It was a personal and open question. I did not ask for “digital marketing” or work they thought was highly effective. I wanted to hear what touched them personally and what they remembered. I listened to individuals talk about their choices carefully. What did I learn?

Even digital marketing experts don’t think or feel much about digital advertising on platforms like Google and Instagram. This is functional sales stimulation stuff that is measured on a cost-per-response basis. Great content builds brands. Most of us agreed that we enjoyed browsing for potential purchases (clothes, jewellery, shoes, antiques – or whatever your passion is) on the likes of Instagram – a pleasurable antidote to ‘doom scrolling’ on Twitter. Live experiences were particularly enjoyed, like Dolce & Gabbana’s pop-up in London (see image) – a glittering, multi-coloured cube amidst the gloom of winter. You could also go inside to listen to music, feel, smell and buy the products. It satisfied all the senses. Brands that satisfy all our senses create memories and feelings.

Attendees brought along brilliant TV ads and posters. These bang up-to-date digital marketers often selected TV ads which had not run for over 10 years! It tells us that short-form storytelling – brilliant little psychodramas with characters, music and action – never go out of fashion and are still a powerful way to create long-term memories. 

If your advertising has an idea that it can refresh and re-express in different media over time, then you have a great advantage, like Specsavers (see image). Having an idea is not often demanded of digital marketers, attendees reported with regret. 

So there is much value in life and work in learning how to ask good questions and really listen. You may not have my luck in learning qualitative techniques, but you can still Google ‘active listening’ (there are lots of useful websites) and then apply some of the techniques in your next meeting. It will be a better meeting. You will both learn more and have better long-term relationships.

Julian Saunders was CEO, Red Cell advertising (a WPP company). He was also Planning Director, Ogilvy, Executive Planning Director, McCann-Erickson and The Zoo, Google